No one doubts the phenomenon of “massification” that has resulted in more access to higher education for more students worldwide. This is certainly a good thing. But as we have discussed in past blogs, massification introduces many new challenges. When higher education was an elite undertaking, entering students often came from elite primary and secondary schools, making it more likely that they had the necessary preparation to continue tertiary studies through to graduation. As participation rates move from 6 or 16 percent to 46 or 66 percent, the cohort includes more students from public primary and secondary schools where the quality of education varies dramatically.
The growing participation in postsecondary education parallels economic growth, particularly notable in Latin America and Africa where rapidly growing economies demand higher levels of skilled labor.
More education for more people is great progress, of course. The problem is that too many people believe that social and economic mobility require a university degree. With the enrollment deluge this has resulted in two critical problems—high dropout rates and underemployed university graduates. As Joyce Lau asks in a June 5th New York Times article (Can Job Training Trump a Degree?), “Is it better to be a well-employed mechanic or chef, or a university graduate with a degree but no job?” There are too many countries with highly educated taxi drivers. Not that someone with a university degree shouldn’t drive a taxi but only if this is a choice, not employment for lack of any other.
What is the alternative? Most developed and rapidly-developing countries seem to have an insatiable need for graduates of technical and vocational schools. This sector is often better prepared to fill in the gaps in prior learning on an “as needed” basis for specific skills being taught. Limited available data hint at much higher employment rates for graduates of this sector and graduates are generally more likely to find work in their area of study and training than many university graduates.
There is a big problem though. This kind of higher education does not begin to offer the social prestige that most parents (and many students) aspire to. Additionally, too many countries, anxious to see their universities appear in international rankings, are making major investments in the university sector. Worse still, these investments are being made in relatively few universities. It seems that the whole planet is pursuing prestige at the expense of common sense.
So what should be done? First—there should be colossal investment in the development of technical and vocational education. This means a serious assessment of the programs currently on offer and whether they are aligned with the needs of the labor market. Next, there needs to be a massive investment in infrastructure as this level of education is too often under-resourced, leaving many non-university institutes without even basic services such as high-speed Internet access. This needs to be followed by research to determine how best to prepare students, followed by training for teachers to assure that the education they are providing is up to date with current practice and technology. And finally, the level of core study in vocational/technical education needs to be “notched up” so that students develop quantitative and soft skills at a level that overlaps with the experience of first and second-year university students.
But the problem of prestige will persist unless there is a policy shift to address it. So my second set of recommendations is to integrate technical and vocational education into university study. By this I mean that graduates of technical and vocational programs should have access to higher education at a later date with advanced standing for studies already completed. Part of the success of the community college in the United States is the fact that it is not a dead end, rather a possible transition for students who aspire to a university degree. In most other countries, students who enter a vocational track will find none of their work comparable to university study and certainly none applicable to another degree if they wish to pursue further study at another time. Too many countries have created parallel paths for vocational/technical and university education that never intersect and this is a big mistake.
As much as I would like to believe in education for its own sake, we live in a world where most people can survive only if they are employed. Not only do we need to link education to the job market more realistically, but we need to recognize that education is a lifelong process and create paths with multiple opportunities for further study and encourage (and support) reentry at different life stages. The “other higher education” has a critical role to play here.